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Canada through the eyes of world literature

Archive for the category “Television”

A Canadian Conformist Tries to Reform Wall Street

60 Minutes, March 30, 2014

The March 30, 2014 episode of CBS’s 60 Minutes features a story on Michael Lewis’ new book, Flash Boys, which involves a Canadian trader, Brad Katsuyama. While working at RBC, he figured out how a quirk in the speed at which trades reach different trading centres was allowing high-frequency traders to make significant profits by essentially front-running the orders of regular traders. He ultimately started his own exchange (! – I didn’t even know you could do that) with the goal of making trading more fair and transparent.

The piece is interesting to watch on its own merits, and it ties in nicely with the more “scientific/technological” side of Canada we’ve been noticing lately, but I couldn’t help wondering, as I sat through it, whether it would provide a glimpse into American attitudes towards Canadians. There is a certain tone of condescending surprise that runs throughout the piece, as though it’s remarkable that Canadians have even heard of the stock exchange, never mind figured out how it works. And then there’s this quote from the host, Steve Kroft, at about the 11:50 mark (11:30 in the YouTube version at the top):

That’s when Katsuyama, a conformist even by Canadian standards, decided to do something radical.

“Even” is the key word in that sentence, suggesting that we Canadians are extremely conformist to begin with, and Katsuyama is, if such a thing is possible, an extremist when it comes to conformity. This seems to me a classic American stereotype about Canadians, one in which they define themselves as the bold, entrepreneurial, free-thinking North Americans and us as their polite, boring, status-quo neighbours to the north. Could this perception be rooted all the way back in the phenomenon of United Empire Loyalists during the American Revolution and our decision to remain a British colony rather than striking out on our own?

Hard to say, but whatever its source, the attitude clearly persists: Canadians are the human equivalent of a dull grey suit, forever masking ourselves and our true feelings, never stepping out of line, never doing anything unexpected but always plodding steadily along without really going much of anywhere.

On the other hand, according to the 60 Minutes report, it took a Canadian – not to figure out what was going on, since apparently other people had figured that out, at least to some extent, but it took a Canadian to actually make the effort to stand up to the vested interests and try to change an unfair system. This phrase, also from Kroft, sums it up nicely:

You beat speed by slowing down?

I suppose Americans would consider that a very Canadian approach to heroism.

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Peace, Health Care and Doughnuts

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Gregg Easterbrook, “Tuesday Morning Quarterback” (October 1, 2013)

Ah, Tim Horton’s: that glowing beacon of Canadian identity.

We’ve already discussed the (aborted) Canadian connection of the TV series “The Bridge”, of course, but in one of those curious instances that proves great minds think alike (or fools seldom differ?), Gregg Easterbrook, in this week’s “Tuesday Morning Quarterback” column, has hit on the same thing:

FX’s “The Bridge” is a remake of a Scandinavian television show about a crime at a bridge between Denmark and Sweden. Before centering the remake on a bridge between Texas and Mexico, producers first proposed using the bridge between Detroit and Windsor, Ontario. A hyper-violent crime drama about U.S.-Canadian relations — there’s no minimum to the potential ratings of that concept. A cross-border tunnel between a Texas ranch and a Mexican cartel’s hideout, used to smuggle heroin, figures in “The Bridge” plot. If the Detroit-Windsor setting had been chosen, it would have been a tunnel into a Tim Horton’s doughnut shop, used to smuggle government-financed Canadian prescription drugs.

Packed into that one small paragraph (which is illustrated with the Tim Horton’s photo above) are a number of typical clichés about Canada. The main idea – that Canada is a totally uninteresting place and that a crime drama about our country would serve no other purpose beyond that of a soporific – comes through clearly in the phrase about there being “no minimum to the ratings potential” of the idea. Clearly, Easterbrook sees Canada as a squeaky-clean, law-abiding place where nothing bad ever happens. It’s almost enough to make one ashamed of our peaceful nation. You feel like crying out, “Hey, we have crime too, you know!” But what’s the point?

But Easterbrook really distinguishes himself in the last sentence, where he manages to bring in a reference to our “government-financed” health care system, and also Tim Horton’s doughnuts. Health care, needless to say, has come up before, but the doughnuts idea is a new one. The corporate overlords at Tim Horton’s must be thrilled to see that their brand is indelibly associated with Canada in the minds of Americans – or are they?

A recent article suggests Tim Horton’s expansion into the U.S. is a failure; could the brand’s connection to Canada, and our uninteresting, crime-free image, be part of the problem? Perhaps doughnuts just taste better when the threat of death feels a little more imminent.

At least Easterbrook spells it “doughnut” rather than “donut”, coming down on the right side of that heated debate.

Two (or Three) Solitudes

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Emily Nussbaum, “Clue” (The New Yorker, August 12 & 19, 2013)

This is from the “On Television” column, discussing a TV series called “The Bridge”:

Created by Meredith Stiehm and Elwood Reid, the show is a reworking of the popular Swedish-Danish mystery show “Broen.” Like the original, it begins with a body, split in two and dumped on a bridge that separates two countries – the bottom half from one corpse, the top half from another. In the original, the half-bodies are from Sweden and Denmark; their discovery forces two police departments to work together. The FX production has taken this setup and plunked it down at the border of Texas and Mexico, a concept with tremendous potential. (Hard to imagine Detroit and Windsor, Ontario, the producers’ initial idea, working nearly so well.)  (79-80)

That sentence, in context, is almost unutterably hilarious. I don’t mean to put down my country by indulging in a typically Canadian bout of insecurity, but … how could anyone possibly think that a story about police having to cooperate across the Canada-U.S. border could be even remotely interesting? Particularly given the ongoing fascination of American culture with their lawless yet strangely magnetic neighbour to the South (see films like The Wild BunchTrafficJulia and countless others), as well as the obvious topical interest of the unsolved crimes in Juarez, which we’ve touched on briefly before.

Certainly Nussbaum’s reference to the (discarded) Canadian concept for the show makes it clear that she sees Canada as far too uninteresting, at least compared with Mexico, to make for compelling TV. (I can’t say I totally disagree.)

In the producers’ defence, I suppose if you’re asking yourself what country has a relationship with the U.S. that’s most like the relationship between Sweden and Denmark, Canada might spring to mind before Mexico. Like Sweden and Denmark, we have more similarities than differences – or is that just a North American assumption, along the lines of “Scandinavians – they’re all the same”? Canadians, after all, tend to bristle if someone suggests we’re just like Americans; do people from Sweden and Denmark bristle at the identical suggestion about them?

Fortunately, our vast and multicultural (very Canadian word, that) staff here at Wow – Canada! includes someone from Sweden, who assures me that Swedish and Danish people see themselves as very similar – more Windsor-Detroit than Texas-Mexico.

As a side note, here in Canada we have, of course, our own “two solitudes” with Quebec separated by language and culture from (most of) the rest of the country. One might almost say the Toronto-Montreal chasm is wider than the Detroit-Windsor separation. (And don’t people from Windsor cheer for the Red Wings? That alone marks them as brethren.)

While it’s hurtful that we didn’t end up being on the other side of “The Bridge,” we can take consolation from the fact that we already have a Canadian-made movie that tells essentially the same story, and we didn’t even have to look outside our own country to find cross-cultural tensions – the film Bon Cop Bad Cop:

So who needs you, FX producers?

Do Not Read about Canada

A Day in the Life of Canada (1985), featured on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon

I’m perpetually getting distracted from literature by these foolish asides. Ordinarily I wouldn’t bother with this, but there are two points of interest for me here, one related to the subject of this blog, and the other purely personal.

Anyway, here is Jimmy Fallon’s “Do Not Read” List for Spring 2013:

The part about A Day in the Life of Canada starts around 2:25, and Fallon’s approach really seems a little easy; the book was part of a series of A Day in the Life of… books done in the mid-80s, so the fact that the clothes are a little outdated is hardly surprising. The choice of cover photo is a little … odd, I admit, once you start analysing it. (And why, incidentally, is a book from 1985 on the Spring 2013 “Do Not Read” list? Has some recent event catapulted A Day in the Life of Canada back into public consciousness? Is there an imminent danger that, without Fallon’s warning, millions would rush out and read it?)

You can learn a little more about the book, and the series (which also included Australia, Japan, and Hawaii, among others), from its Amazon page. And should you wish to ignore Fallon’s advice, new and used copies are still available!

More interesting for our purposes is the discussion between Fallon and his sidekick about what they might find inside in the book (around 3:10). Fallon starts off by saying he loves Canada and has a lot of fans here, but what we get is this rather depressing list of clichés:

Probably pictures of maple leaves, ice hockey…
Poutine…
Poutine…
Mountains…
Yeah, sure.

So there is a good look at the ground Canada has staked out in the American mind: hockey, poutine, and pleasant scenery (maple leaves and mountains). Fallon seems almost shocked to think we have anything as advanced as store mannequins up here; isn’t Canada just a wilderness with a few ice rinks scraped out of the endless tundra?

As for the personal reason: as a child, I had a copy of A Day in the Life of Canada. (And scrolling through the YouTube comments on the video, I see I’m not alone: the comment “Oh my god I own that Canada book!” had 29 likes as of this writing.)

I got it as a gift, and my recollection is that, with typical Canadian humility (or is it insecurity?), we were thrilled that our little country had been included in the series. Being part of it was a point of national pride, and I recall the book being written up as a great opportunity to present Canada to the world. No doubt the thoughtful aunt who gave it to me bought it partly out of a feeling that buying a copy was somehow showing her support for Canada itself.

Given that, 28 years later, Jimmy Fallon’s mind still turns to maple leaves and ice hockey when he thinks of us, it seems the book may not have been the roaring success we hoped for.

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